The Tribune - Spectrum


, February 10, 2002
Time Off

Gandhara orphans
Manohar Malgonkar

HOW faces change! It is not easy to identify a person from his or her photograph taken even a few years earlier. "Don’t tell me that’s you!", we’re told.

The same must happen to nations as the centuries pass. They, too, seem to have changed beyond recognition. Maps of ancient India in history books bring out this point. Way up in the north, the country that lies embedded in the great mountains is called Bahlika. The southern tip which is washed by a warm, tropical sea is known as the Pandya region. To our west, way beyond the Indus river, lies a land called Gedrosia, and the eastern boundary which is formed by the delta at the mouths of great rivers is known as Samatats.

The guideposts are deceptive. Yet, the moment we look at the map we know almost by instinct that this strange country in India, as an infant knows its mother. And it is this India that we have in mind when we talk of our ancient heritage: for it was not only vast in size as a single nation; it was both mighty and well-governed. It was a land both prosperous and civilised. Crops were grown, animals fattened for their meat. Scholarship was held in high esteem, and the arts flourished. The religion of the land had been codified and it laid down rules of behaviour for all grades of society. There was literature and drama, festivals and dancing.Its various regions were administered by tribal chiefs who were subservient to an emperor known to the world as Asoka.

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The most unusual thing about this emperor was that he happened to be a man of peace. In his reign of close on 40 years, he undertook only one campaign, that of Kalinga, or what we today know as Orissa. In this campaign, he took nearly 150,000 prisoners. Of this number as many as 100,000 were put to death.

Asoka who, until then, had been a man of the world, fond of the good life, of wine, women and song, was so horrified by the consequences of that one military campaign, that he took a vow of non-violence and turned to a near-saintly way of life. And herein lies the true greatness of Asoka. At a time when a man called Jesus of Nazareth was not even born, we in India had a monarch who was a practitioner of Gandhian philosophy: He exercised power over his vast empire through ahimsa.

It is this India that most of us had in mind when we talked of our cultural heritage — god knows that we had little else to feel proud of. And it was all in keeping with the attitude of the sahibs towards the people of the land that they should look upon this trait as a character-defect. "The melancholy product of a subject nation’s inferiority complex," Aldous Huxley, who visited India in the mid 1920s, called it. Ironically enough, our rulers, too, were badly afflicted by the same character-flaw, except that theirs was more of a ‘superiority complex’. The empire was at its zenith. The British had come out victorious against Germany in the 1914-1919 war. And the empire’s most vociferous champion, Rudyard Kipling, was their unflagging cheer-leader, banging away the drum.

In the nineteen-twenties, when Aldous Huxley was in India, the empire must have resembled the Rock of Gibraltar: Something imperishable. The name Gandhi was not unknown and had been acknowledged by Britain’s Prince of Wales who had toured India in 1921, as a ‘Menacing shadow’. Our other political leaders were content to accept much less than full independence: their ultimate goal was ‘Dominion Status’; a limited freedom within the confines of what the empire’s guardians described as their ‘steel frame’.

When, in 1947, the British left India, many of them must have done so with a sense of relief that they, too, were to be freed from its problems. It was after they had settled down to a life without an empire that they began to realise how much it had meant to them. The wave of empire-nostalgia created its own literature. James Morris wrote a brilliant history in three massive volumes totalling some 1700 pages. Phillip Woodruff wrote several books, including one in praise of his own service, the I.C.S. John Masters made his breakthrough as a novelist by romanticising its violence and arrogance, and even the B.B.C. came out with a volume called Plain Tales from the Raj. There was such a glut of memoirs from the Empire’s pensioners that publishers in Britain just did not want any more of them. Sir Conrad Corfield, who had been India’s political secretary and who, in that capacity had been in charge of the princely states, wrote a book titled The Princely India I Knew. No one in England seemed to want to know it, however, and finally a historical society in Madras published it, in 1975.

It was in this climate that Paul Scott’s Raj Quartetta sought to interpret the empire to a generation of Britons who had lost all interest in it; and Britain itself, to the outside world, was represented by the Beatles, Carnaby Street dandies, and skinheads wearing chain-belts who marched in pairs — holding hands.

The whole concept of colonial rule stood discredited; and Kipling’s sahibs had been replaced by new cult figures such as Cliff Richards, Sammy Davis, and Michael Jackson.

And as to ourselves; if some of us still tended to glorify our ancient past, there was no question of anyone saying that we were gripped by an inferiority complex. The facts, as they say, speak for themselves.

The oldest university in England, that of Oxford, was established in the late 12th century — right? Well. Fifteen hundred years before that time, India had a thriving centre of learning which historians have described as a university, at a place called Taxila where, as The Oxford History of India tells us "crowds of pupils were taught... and princess and well-to-do Brahmins were sent on attaining the age of sixteen to complete their education." Taxila also had a medical school which, "enjoyed a special reputation." But of course, other arts and science "could be studied under the most eminent professors."

Taxila was near today’s Rawalpindi, in Pakistan. Taxila as well as Peshawar fell within India’s northernmost region, known as Gandhara, which was most of today’s Afghanistan.

Around the time of the beginning of the Christian era, Gandhara had become the showpiece of a new religion, Buddhism. From the 4th century B.C. when Alexander the Great invaded India and later, because of its contact with the Romans, Gandhara’s religious art became strongly influenced by the work of Greek sculptors. Over the years, Gandhara became known for a distinct style of art: the Gandhara School.

Gandhara’s sculptors were truly prolific. They had carved out those gigantic statues of Buddha near Bamiyan, and seem to have worked like beavers making images in mud, metal or stone, depicting fanciful or real aspects of Buddha’s life. In the 19th century, Afghanistan came to be regarded as a veritable Alladin’s cave of art treasures, just waiting to be opened up to archaeological adventurism. Only the fearsome reputation that the tribes had acquired towards all foreign intrusions into their land must have prevented Gandhara’s statuary from being spirited out of Afghanistan by the world’s commandos of archaeology, who, no matter where they came from and how high-minded they pretended to be, were firm believers in the principle of ‘Finders-Keepers’.Then came the free-for-all of tribal wars of the past twenty years. That was when Afghanistan became a fertile field of enterprise for the smugglers of art works. Objects that were not easily transportable were actually broken up and carted away in pieces. Before long, everything that was lying around or in private hands was removed. Only whatever was rooted to the ground, like those statues and the sculptures kept in the nation’s museums remained in Afghanistan.Then the Taliban destroyed the lot.

So ironically, the art smugglers must be seen as benefactors of the art world; it was they who managed to save large quantities of Gandhara treasures from certain destruction. But then here, too, the sahibs that ruled the Raj had done something similar.

For what are said to be some of the most priceless examples of Gandhara Art are held in the Government Museum at Lahore — some acquired by Rudyard Kipling’s father who, for a time, was its curator.